Five keys to a Ravens victory over Titans
The Baltimore Ravens will square off with the Tennessee Titians for the third time in the last calendar year in the fourth game of Super Wildcard Weekend on Sunday. If they want to avoid a third straight loss, these will be the five keys to securing a victory and advancing to the Divisional Round next week.
Stop Derrick Henry
The two-time league rushing champion is coming off the best season of his career where he became the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards. He was the battering ram that the Titans used to hand the Ravens a pair of gut-wrenching losses 10 months apart.
Henry rushed for 195 yards on 30 carries and threw for a touchdown in Tennessee’s 28-12 win in the divisional round of the 2019 playoffs and when the two teams met in the 2020 regular season back in Week 11, he got going in the second half and finished with 133 yards on 28 carries and broke off a 29-yard touchdown in overtime to secure a 30-24 victory.
Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale believes Henry is “the best running back in football” and that slowing him down is without mistake “the greatest challenge every play.”
However, the Ravens will have Pro Bowl interior defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell back in uniform and in the starting lineup after both players missed the last meeting.
“He’s a hard runner. Obviously, he’s a strong runner – he’s his own blocker. He definitely has a lot of things in a great running back, and we’re prepared to try to get to him as much as we possibly can,” Williams said. “There are two juggernauts there that are coming back that weren’t there the last time.”
Despite the valiant and herculean efforts of Derek Wolfe, the Ravens depleted defensive line depth chart eventually wore down in the second half and gave way and Henry was able to get into a groove.
It will still take a group effort by the entire defense to ensure that the Titans bruiser doesn’t get going between the tackles or around the edge where he has also proven he can do damage.
“It’s football. You approach it the same way; you have to get him on the ground,” cornerback Marcus Peters said. “It doesn’t matter how ugly it is, how beautiful it is, but you have to get him on the ground. That’s the biggest thing – we get him on the ground, we slow him down, we fight for the next play.”
Let Lamar be Lamar
In both of the Ravens’ playoff losses and for almost two-thirds of the 2020 regular season, the offense wasn’t in sync and the reigning league MVP didn’t look like his usual loose and dynamic self.
It seemed as if Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman and even Jackson himself were trying too hard to make him a more traditional modern quarterback and have him rely less on his legs and more on his arm.
While that sounds like a sound plan to preserve the longevity of a young signal-caller, it limited the effectiveness and explosiveness of the offense at times.
Jackson admitted that shift that sparked his late-season turn around where he looked like his peak MVP self was a change in mentality after his bout with COVID-19 that caused him to sit out a game.
“My mindset is different,” Jackson said. “We’ve got another opportunity this time. This time let’s just finish.”
He believes that he was often trying to force a big play instead of taking what the opposing defense was giving him or just using his generational athleticism to take off and make magic with his legs.
“Just focus. Focus on the task at hand,” Jackson said. “When you get in there, just take your time because things don’t [always] happen the way it should. Don’t try to make things happen right away. Take your time. I feel like that’s what I did a little bit, sometimes trying to do too much.”
His teammates and coaches have noticed the change as well and are seeing a much more comfortable and confident Jackson who is playing and moving faster because he is thinking less.
“He’s a different type of guy. His mindset, the way he thinks, that’s not going to be something that’s going to weigh him down or affect the way he plays in this game,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “He’s got big goals, we all do. We’re all excited for this game. He’s got a lot of teammates to help him out. … This is a different team with a different mindset.”
Jackson was excellent from both a passing a rushing standpoint during the Ravens’ five-game winning streak to close out the regular season.
He threw with accuracy and touch on a much more consistent basis than he did to start the year and wasn’t afraid to tuck the ball and run more often to pick up drive extending first downs on impromptu scrambles when his targets were covered.
As long as Roman doesn’t stray away from what has worked so incredibly well for his unit in the regular season and Jackson doesn’t try to do too much and let the game come to him, there is no way that the Titans porous defense will be able to stop them from having their way through the air and especially on the ground.
Defend Titans’ play-action passing attack
While the Titans are a run-first team, much like the Ravens, they are far from one dimensional on offense. If Henry and the running game get going, it opens the door for Tennessee’s explosive play-action passing attack to do damage through the air.
Veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill was the most dangerous play-action passer in the league during the regular season with a league-best 143.6 passer rating on such plays.
He was also first in adjusted yards per attempt with a mark of 14.1 and third in completion percentage with a mark of 76.5.
“It’s the play-action pass,” Martindale said. “He’s in a rhythm now, and the years slowed the game down for him. He’s mastered this offense, and he’s playing really confident. I’d play confident, too, with the skillset he has around him – that’s the difference that I see with it.”
Tannehill isn’t as dynamic as Jackson but in the red zone, his underrated athleticism can be just as deadly if he decides to tuck and run when he can’t find an open target to throw to. He only had 266 yards on the ground but his seven rushing touchdowns ranked in the top 20 of the league and proof of the threat he presents near the goal line.
“This is one of the best red zone teams, offensively, that we’ve faced, and that’s because of Ryan Tannehill and what he brings to that offense,” Martindale said. “You’re talking about a quarterback that [has] guys that can play, probably, three different positions on offense. He’s a talent, and he’s athletic.”
Tennessee has pair of big-bodied wide receivers in AJ Brown and Corey Davis who are capable of breaking big plays from anywhere on the field and a trio of tight ends that are pass-catching threats as well so the Ravens can completely sell out to stop the run on every play because the Tannehill will make them pay.
Feed J.K. Dobbins
The second-round pick out of Ohio State came on extremely during the second half of his rookie season and was one of the Ravens’ best most explosive offensive weapons down the stretch. He scored a rushing touchdown in six straight games and set a new franchise record for most scores by a rookie.
Dobbins helped the Ravens punch their ticket to the playoffs with his best performance of the season in Week 17 when he rushed for a career-high 160 yards and touchdowns on 13 carries. He is ecstatic to have made the postseason in his first year but isn’t satisfied by just making it to the dance, he wants to do everything in his power to propel the team as far as possible.
“Getting into the playoffs is a great accomplishment, and I’m glad I can experience that my rookie year. But I’m the type of guy who wants more. I want to be great. I don’t want to be mediocre. Yes, I’m glad to be in the playoffs, but I know the goal and I know why I was brought here. And I’m just going to do everything I can to help this team win this first playoff game.”
He wants to make a name and legacy for himself and knows that shinning on the biggest stages under bright lights will go along way towards proving that.
“I’ve been dreaming about the Super Bowl and the NFL playoffs since I was a little kid. And now, it’s finally here,” Dobbins said. “I want to play in the big games, always. They say big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games – and I want to see if I’m a big-time player.”
What better way to prove that you’re among the league’s best than to outperform arguably the best player at your respective position.
That will be the opportunity that Dobbins will be presented with on Sunday and if the Ravens want to maximize their likelihood of coming away with the road playoff win, they’ll feed their best back early and often.
Tackle better on defense
In the second half of both of the previous games and even at times during the opening two quarters, the Ravens’ poor tackling on defense and failure to wrap up Henry, in particular, led to huge gains and even touchdowns.
If the Ravens want to make sure that they allow minimal yards after catch and contact, they must be technically sound in the fundamental art of making proper form tackles, especially in the second and third levels of the defense.
Henry and Davis are extremely tough to tackle in the open field and rarely go down after the first contact. They routinely break arm tackles and will drag defenders for extra yardage and even into the end zone if they don’t dig their cleats in the turf to drive them back and bring them down.
“They’re catch-after-run guys, and they can also try to go by you, too,” Martindale said. “With their quarterback, with their running back, with their tight ends, and with their wide receivers, it’s a great challenge.”